For the first time in nearly two years, one of the state’s largest cross country meets is back to being an in-person event.
The 38th annual Hole in the Wall Invitational takes place Saturday at Lakewood High School. Over 100 teams will be in attendance, and over 4,000 athletes are slated to run at the day-long event across its 13 junior-varsity and varsity races.
“Not only are we excited, but I think students are excited to get back to doing something that’s — I hate to say it — as close to the old normal as possible,” Lakewood cross country coach Jeff Sowards said.
Hole in the Wall regularly draws some of the top competition from across the Pacific Northwest, and that’s once again the case this year.
Three nationally ranked squads — the Bishop Blanchet boys and the Jesuit (Oregon) boys and girls — will be competing in the 5,000-meter races.
A whopping 46 runners with top-10 state times in the 5,000 meters in their respective classification are slated to run in either the elite or gold boys and girls varsity races, according to Athletic.net.
“I think it’s really important,” Sowards said of holding a race of this magnitude. “A lot of teams choose to come now because we’re also hosting the District 1 championships (Oct. 30). So they’ll want to come preview the course. And they come because the competition, frankly, in the elite division this year will be as strong or stronger than any division at the state meet. And to test themselves against the best in the northwest regardless of classification.”
Last season’s Hole in the Wall was held virtually in the spring due to restrictions caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Sowards said the event shrank considerably with just over 100 individuals competing. In 2019, a record-setting 125-plus high school teams attended. Athletic.net shows 113 teams set to partake in Saturday’s races.
“Virtually it’s clearly not the same meet,” Sowards said. “We’re super excited.”
So how has it been putting together an in-person meet with over 4,000 athletes and 100 teams in the midst of a global pandemic for Sowards and his core group volunteers?
“We’re kind of like that old metaphor with the duck above the water that looks real calm but underneath the water it’s paddling like heck,” Sowards said. “I kind of feel like that’s what we’re doing a little bit this week.”
The challenges have mainly come through difficulties with supply chain, including getting bibs for athletes and apparel through vendors.
The meet’s usual bib supplier went out of business and its new supplier faced problems presented by the pandemic. Sowards normally receives bibs for the race months in advance. The bibs for Saturday’s high school races and Friday’s middle school races came in this week.
“It’s not that they’re not willing (to supply them),” Sowards said. “It’s that they can’t even produce it or have access to things they normally have access to.”
Sowards said the steps being taken to help mitigate the risk of spreading COVID-19 are second nature after living with the virus for the past year and a half.
“We’re used to doing the things we have to,” Sowards said. “We’re outside, but we’re in a large group of people. So lets mask up. We’re doing that for each other.”
One new wrinkle this fall that will help in mitigating the risks of COVID-19 exposure is the middle-school version of Hole in the Wall has been moved to Friday. That move was already in the works after one of the junior-varsity boys races in 2019 had over 900 runners and was forced to use a five-minute staggered start to accommodate all the athletes. Sowards said moving the middle-school races to Friday opened a few more slots for junior-varsity races on Saturday.
“It just so happens that it works out good for some of the things we need to do for COVID,” he said.
The races will be live streamed on the Lakewood School District YouTube channel.
“We try to add something new every year,” Sowards said, “and that’s the big add this year.”
The event starts at 9 a.m. and varsity races begin at 1:30 p.m.
The Hole in the Wall Invitational started in 1983. Then, it was an 11-team meet put together entirely by Sowards and then-Lakewood cross country coach Mike Evans.
“We set up the course together. We did all the bibs together. We had a stopwatch. We did everything,” Sowards said. “(Evans) and I had that kind of energy and desire to put on a good meet. Obviously it’s grown to what it is because the community is really behind it. It’s something we can all be proud of.”
Now over 125 volunteers throughout the Lakewood and surrounding cross country communities help put on the prestigious event.
Sowards highlighted the efforts of fellow Cougars coach Monica Rooney, longtime community member Steve Jensen and Lakewood alum Nathan Zahn as being key in putting this season’s meet together.
“It’s kind of a year round thing,” Sowards said of producing the meet. “Countless hours. I know it’s kind of cliche, but it really is.”